Flannery begins in 1964, with student radical Nicky returning from America, fired up by the civil rights movement and dreams of changing the world. His embittered, distant father, a veteran of the Jarrow march and a lapsed Labour activist, pours scorn on his ideals.
His girlfriend Mary approves - but while Nicky campaigns for a Labour candidate committed to urban redevelopment, she falls for aspiring pop star Tosker. Meanwhile, feckless Geordie escapes his alcoholic father by running off to London and making his fortune in the illegal porn industry, only to suffer a startling fall from grace.
Willow Lane Flats, first of the promised 'cities in the sky', provide Mary and Tosker with their first home - and are soon revealed to be damp ridden and dangerous. As the years pass, their deterioration mirrors Nicky's decline through anarchism and violence, into reluctant Labour candidacy, a career as a radical photojournalist, and final disillusionment.
Eventually, the flats are condemned and replaced by decent housing, but it's too late. The rot has moved from the slums to the hearts of the slum dwellers, creating a culture of unemployment, gymslip mothers, and delinquents in search of love their parents don't know how to give.
Flannery is an unashamedly political dramatist, but he pulls no punches when depicting the failures of either right or left. His target is the machinery of politics, and its failure to provide people's most basic needs in a way that doesn't lead to corruption or exploitation.
The real strength of his writing is the way it traces the ongoing effects of social change. Police corruption in the 1960s gives way to open aggression on 1980s' picket lines, then to helplessness in the face of social collapse. The shallow modesty of a time when prostitutes' adverts read 'Large Chest for sale' or 'Rare butterfly; needs Mounting' fades inexorably into depravity. The violence of the miners' strike filters through to the next generation, creating muggers and car thieves out of bored kids. The ambitious better themselves, only to fall victim to stock market crashes or the whims of Parliament. And always, the fat cats get fatter, the corrupt protect themselves, and ordinary folk pay the price. After Geordie's fall, his porn baron boss observes that 'This is a tough time for the little people.' He could have been talking about any day in the last 30 years.
And yet this is an intensely personal story - of failed ambitions, failed marriages, lingering passions, the bond between parent and child, and above all, life-long friendship. What few answers Flannery has to offer are resolutely personal. Nicky begins as a whirlwind of idealism who, when asked what he has to offer the Labour party, replies, 'Impatience.' Within 20 years, he's burned out and morally bankrupt. It's only when the onset of Alzheimer's disease begins to uncover his father's past that Nicky realises he's fallen into the same trap, and finds a fragile peace at last.
With an excellent cast including Christopher Ecceleston, Gina McKee, Daniel Craig, and Malcolm McDowell, this powerful and moving series is a vital addition to any drama-lover's collection. An additional disc featuring a discussion between the writer and directors, perceptive interviews with the actors, and a synopsis and stills depicting an earlier, radically different version of the first episode, makes it well worth splashing out and replacing those tatty VHS copies.